EDITOR'S NOTE: MLB The Show 21 won a "highly recommended" honor for best graphics in the Tom's Guide Awards 2021 for gaming.
Like all sports games enthusiasts, fans of MLB The Show have come to accept that each new yearly entry will provide a few meaningful changes, alongside a bevy of minor improvements. Whether these improvements, as well as updated rosters, provide reason enough for players to shell out money year after year is always subjective. But one thing remains certain: The Show is the best way to experience America’s favorite pastime in video game form.
MLB The Show 21 is no different in that regard. With this year’s expansion to Xbox, the series is finally accessible to a whole new audience, which has long been missing out on a high-profile baseball sim. There’s some cool new features to help usher in this exciting era for the franchise, too, even if none of it feels truly next-gen.
With the exception of a stadium creator, the only real differences between last-gen and current-gen versions of MLB The Show 21 are in performance and visuals. And even some of those features represent less of an upgrade than you might initially expect.
Read on for our full MLB The Show 21 review.
MLB The Show 21 review: Presentation
In MLB The Show 21, character models and fields look essentially the same as they did in The Show 20 on PS4 Pro. I wasn’t overly fond of some distracting clipping and shimmering on certain textures. Nevertheless, The Show 21 looks and feels a bit cleaner than usual on PS5 and Series X, due to running at 4K and 60 frames per second. The game's infrequent blemishes haven’t done much to diminish my enjoyment. Even if we’re not being treated to the full next-gen experience, this new iteration keeps up with the series’ trend of offering a fundamentally attractive sports sim.
Although the game isn't a massive visual overhaul, there are some undeniable improvements in its animations and general sense of flow. Pitching and batting have received plenty of attention, and feel more authentic. But fielding benefits the most here, thanks to the addition of more than 1,000 new animations.These make movement feel considerably more fluid and natural than ever before. If the perpetual push towards realism in yearly sports releases is a big draw, then you’ll find a lot to love here.
The normal high points of MLB The Show's presentation are here, too, including fantastic broadcast options and solid commentating. I’m also a sucker for the series’ usual thumping menu soundtrack. This time, it’s filled with popular acts from the worlds of rock and rap, such as AC/DC, Relaye, Foo Fighters, Onyx and more. It’s always nice to have good music while you navigate the clean and efficient UI, exploring all of the game’s various modes.
MLB The Show 21 review: Gameplay and modes
Speaking of modes, MLB The Show has always excelled at presenting players with a solid selection. The small alterations each year tend to improve the experience. But I’ve always been vocal about the removal of Season Mode a few iterations back, as well as the subsequent addition of March to October. I don’t find the latter’s focus on key moments, rather than full season control, particularly enjoyable. The March to October mode makes for a fine casual diversion, but its relevance continues to wane with each release, especially as Franchise Mode becomes more accessible.
For instance: Players who don’t want all of the simulation aspects of MLB The Show 21 interrupting their season, can automate most aspects of Franchise Mode. And if you like full control over your franchise, MLB The Show 21 features more practical trading, as well as a move from weekly to annual form budgets. These innovations put an end to some of the irritation that arose from free agency in the past.
Be prepared for a gut punch, though, when you realize that MLB The Show 21 doesn't support your usual year-to-year saves. Adding insult to injury, developer San Diego Studios hasn’t given much of an explanation as to why it removed this popular feature.
On the bright side, I can safely say that the Road to the Show mode is the best it’s ever been. Previous entries in MLB The Show have always sought to make you feel like your character was an ever-growing force in the baseball kingdom, but it often came across as superficial and scripted. This time, you may be surprised at just how far the game goes to make you feel like you’re having an impact on the beloved sport.
An expanded set of narrative features goes a long way toward engrossing you in your individual story, and lending a sense of emotional reward for your achievements. Most notable is a large collection of fictional analysts and real-life names who regularly discuss your successes and failures in podcast format. This feels personalized for your character, because it adjusts dynamically to your actions. When you couple this with other enhanced story elements, full player loadouts, the option to make a two-way player and the ability to bring your created character into the Diamond Dynasty mode, it’s far and away the best version of Road to the Show yet.
Another one of the game's strengths is its easily tailored difficulty. As someone who is confident with pitching, but lacks some of the timing prowess needed to be a batting champ, I love being able to adjust the control styles for these gameplay mechanics separately. There’s also a dynamic difficulty option, which can help you keep things interesting throughout your matchups. Meanwhile, this year’s addition of Pinpoint Pitching, which asks players to succeed at a variety of rapid inputs for different pitch types, may not appeal to everyone. But it’s a great option for skilled fans who are seeking a fresh challenge on the mound.
Diamond Dynasty has also seen user-friendly changes that make it feel less like a pay-to-win mode. You can now obtain every card in the game without spending real-world money. There’s still a substantial learning curve involved in playing the marketplace, and I won’t pretend I’ve mastered the mode. But I definitely felt stronger out of the gate this time through. Offline and casual play feel more streamlined, offering substantial rewards without overwhelming players with limited team-building knowledge.
MLB The Show 21 review: Multiplayer
It’s discouraging that the Online Franchise mode hasn’t made a comeback in MLB The Show 21. But the good news is that Custom Leagues still offers an entertaining and flexible way for friends to come together and play their own teams in a relaxed environment, or go toe-to-toe competitively to see who will end up on top. Setting your own rules and deciding how short or long everyone’s journey will be continues to keep things interesting, and ensure the whole group is having a good time.
Sadly, actually playing online has been a sore spot during my time with MLB The Show 21. Both pitching and batting suffer from frequent lag spikes that can result in unfortunate, game-defining outcomes. These feel unfair and deflating. Of course, I’ve also thrown perfectly hittable pitches down the middle and could tell that my opponent swung far too early or late to be considered a normal miscalculation. I can only imagine they were feeling that same disappointment.
I’ve never been one to indulge extensively in online play in sports titles, so these issues haven't majorly affected my fun. But I expect that this will be sincerely disheartening for more competitive players, and I hope the servers can be optimized sooner rather than later.
MLB The Show 21 review: Verdict
As the cross-gen era fades over the next few years, I hope to see The Show take full advantage of the power available on Sony and Microsoft’s new platforms. As of right now, however, there’s not a lot about MLB The Show 21 that feels like it has benefitted from a move to next-gen consoles.
That being said, the PS5 and Xbox Series X versions of MLB The Show 21 certainly provide adequate performance boosts. Furthermore, the refined gameplay and new features prove that the series deserves its reputation as the best way to play baseball outside of a real-life visit to the ballpark.